Out of control [Editorial]

The Aegis

Back in August, when Aberdeen’s mayor and four City Council members spent the better part of a Saturday crafting a new vision for their city, little was said relative to the city’s biggest visitors draw, Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, and how it figures into that vision.

Considering the group worked with an outside facilitator to develop a plan to enhance what Aberdeen already has and take it to the next level, so to speak, omission of the stadium from those plans seems awfully short-sighted, if not negligent.

Let’s also be clear, however, that Mayor Patrick McGrady on that same occasion, as he has many times in the past, waxed enthusiastically about developing residences and businesses in the area around the stadium, and north to Aldino-Stepney Road. Somehow, he failed to see the forest through the trees.

New vision notwithstanding, Ripken Stadium remains the most tangible and valuable asset the City of Aberdeen has to bring people to town and then keep them coming back – not just driving through on their way to and from jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground, something about which city officials constantly complain.

People aren’t coming to Aberdeen solely to shop or eat, and if they are riding the train, they’re likely to drive right back home after they get off. They do come and spend money, however, to watch baseball games or because their children are involved with one of the Ripken Experience youth baseball programs at the complex next to the stadium.

Last week negotiations completely broke down between the city and Tufton Baseball LLC, owner of the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team, over future management of non-baseball events at the stadium.

McGrady and three council members declared this week they intend to sell the stadium and the city will manage non-baseball events there until a suitable buyer takes over. That doesn’t directly impact the IronBirds, who have a separate agreement to use the facility through 2022, but the declaration does further drive a wedge between city government and Tufton, and that’s not good for anyone.

Baseball Hall of Famer and Aberdeen native Cal Ripken Jr., who controls Tufton with his brother and former Orioles teammate Bill Ripken, says he’s been perplexed by the city’s position and feels almost as though the brothers have been cast as villains by McGrady and some council members.

“There are some misperceptions in the community, and I hear from my mom, my sister and my brother Billy that things are out there,” Cal Ripken told Jeff Barker of The Baltimore Sun last week. “They live in the community and they go to the grocery store, they go to the gas station, they’re running into people, and people are asking questions.”

McGrady says the stadium has been and will continue to be a drain on city finances and on the taxpayers, as long as the current operational situation continues. It’s a problem he inherited, and while he’s not the first mayor to make that complaint, he is the first with a steady stream of revenue now dedicated to the stadium: the lodging tax Harford County has collected since March 2015 from visitors staying in local hotels.

The mayor said this week that the Tufton organization was offered ownership of the stadium, with potential tax incentives, once the city’s debt is paid off in three years.

Although Tufton officials had said previously they did not want to own the facility, a spokesperson said Tuesday the city’s latest – and apparently final offer – was presented with only 72 hours to make a decision. Considering the two sides have been talking about the future director of the facility since at least the summer of 2016, a 72-hour window to take it or leave is unreasonable. Tufton declined the offer. Who can blame them?

Maybe the city shouldn’t be in the stadium ownership or management business, but the approach by McGrady and the council is akin to a scorched earth policy where the ones who will be immolated in the end are Aberdeen residents, and by extension, their neighbors elsewhere in Harford County.

The stadium, the IronBirds, the Ripken name are all major assets to Harford County and its economy and should not be cast aside as an inconvenience, treated as somebody else’s problem. The situation with Ripken Stadium is spiraling out of control and can only end badly. City officials need to stop, step back and think about the consequences of their potential actions before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, city residents need to demand that before any deal to sell, give away or otherwise dispose of the stadium is completed, they must be given the final say in a referendum. After all, it’s their property and their future.

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